Sunday, January 23, 2011

Letters and Manuscripts

There's a hidden gem in Paris, well, not so hidden as it is since April 2010 located in a beautiful Haussmannian building on the Bd Saint-Germain: the Musée des Lettres et des Manuscrits.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Autograph manuscript illustrated with aquarelle from the author, April 1943-May 1944
I still cannot believe I never heard of this beautiful museum until very recently. The Museum was established in 2004 in a townhouse rue de Nesle and moved to its current location last April. It was founded by Gérard Lhéritier, a collector, investor, writer passionate about history and manuscripts. Lhéritier explains in an interview for the newsletter of the Aidac how it all started: "Very early, I've grown an interest in the arts in general and more particularly in old documents. But my encounter with Autographed Letter Signed has been by chance. My son used to collect stamps and I wanted to offer him the first French stamp, the 20 cents black stamp from 1849, for his birthday. While looking for it, I saw in a window at rue Drouot a small letter with the inscription "par Ballon Monté" and I asked the owner of the shop what it meant." It referred to Balloon Mail, used to transport mail during the Siege of Paris of 1870. "A nice Jules Verne like story that seduced me" says Lhéritier, explaining that he bought this letter and that's how his passion started. Within the 'History' section of the Museum, there is a whole window dedicated to the Paris Siege including letters from Victor Hugo to a journalist of Courrier de l'Europe in London and from Edouard Manet to young artist and Manet's student Eva Gonzales, both letters including information about the Siege. Lhéritier's interest in the Paris Siege grew into a passion of letters and manuscripts and the founding of this museum in 2004.

Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, Edition of the Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences; des arts et des métiers, Genève, Pellet, 1777-1779, in 39 volumes.   

The museum has some 70,000 pieces in its collection, from which around 250 are on display in its permanent collection, and other pieces are shown in various temporary exhibition (one about Romain Gary is currently on show until 3 April 2011). 
Jacques Brel's Cahier a spirales vert, 1964

The permanent collection is divided into thematic sections: History, Sciences and Discoveries, Music, Arts, and Literature. By clicking on each of the thematic sections' links, you can explore some of the pieces of the collection. Going from section to section the visitor will have the chance to discover a wide range of original letters and manuscripts, like documents from the Second World War -including letters from Charles de the Gaulle or the cease-fire order signed by Eisenhower, Einstein's notes on the Theory of Relativity, a letter from Charles Darwin, an original partition by Beethoven, notes and letters by Chanson Francaise artists Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg, and last but not least, letters by the greatest writers of French literature including Balzac, Zola, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Hugo, and many many more. One of my personal highlights was Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's window including a letter he wrote to a young female officer he met in Algeria and was in love with, and the movingly beautiful drawings with words of Le Petit Prince. 
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Autograph manuscripts illustrated with aquarelles from the author, April 1943-May 1944
Although this museum is of high interest to French and non French visitors alike, there is absolutely no information available in any other language than French, even on the website. This is of course a pity as the heritage shown here isn't just relevant to the French of French speaking people and I hope that the museum is working on a multilingual communication for the near future. However, this shouldn't stop you from visiting, especially if you manage to do a little preparation before. Also, you won't need to understand every single word to be moved by Edith Piaf's writing, Saint-Exupery's drawings of Le Petit Prince, or by the formulas of Einstein. 

A catalogue of the permanent exhibition is also available (in French); Lettres et manuscrits. Petits et grands secrets. Edited by the Museum and Flammarion (2010).

Photos without flash are allowed in the museum. The museum website has much better pictures than the one I took with my iPhone (and are of poor quality I admit but still useful to illustrate this post). 

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